Managing depression: how horses help and heal

Originally posted on Elephant Journal

Author: Nikki Hodgson

It’s been five years since I boarded a bus with a duffle bag in one hand and my passport in the other, looking over my shoulder as the West Bank, Israel, and Gaza faded from sight and Egypt came into view.

I spent three days in Dahab, sitting at the edge of the Red Sea, trying to piece myself back together before I realized I needed help. Depression has been a longstanding struggle, but my work in conflict zones had put an added strain on an already fractured heart. I collected stories of human rights violations and folded them into my notebook, one splintered life at a time, and the weight of it all snapped my heart in two.

Sitting in the middle of the Sinai, I wanted the mountains I had grown up with and now, five years later, I am still here, watching the Flatirons and the red-winged blackbird. I have carved out a place in the corner of an equine-assisted psychotherapy facility, but the old memories stick to my ribs, wedged into my throat, they press against my chest. And so I am still here, exploring old dirt roads and the contents of my heart on the back of my favorite horse.

I chose a different life than the one I had imagined. I thought I would always be living out of a suitcase, but I was only trying to stay one step ahead of the depression I couldn’t shake. I needed to learn to stay and manage it. But I miss the sound of my Converse against the worn stones of ancient cities. I miss the hard blue sky and all that soft beige stone.

I haven’t forgotten the sound of a tank crushing stones and discarded cans in the street. I haven’t forgotten the hang of a rifle or the spiraling arc of a tear gas canister. When I close my eyes, I see the snake of traffic slithering across bare hills and the looping curl of barbed wire adorning every checkpoint. I haven’t forgotten the way a sheet drapes over a body and the way the blood gathers between those ancient stones.

When I came to Colorado, I forced myself to stay. For a few years, I said, just for a few years until I can understand the things I have seen and the way my heart has crumbled. But it’s been almost five years and I am still here; I have put my roots so deep that when the winds of my restlessness rage, I remain.

My life is tied to this place and the thirty horses who inhabit it, to dawn feedings and mucking stalls, to the dust that curls into the air and settles into the creases of saddles and boots and dilapidated wheelbarrows. It is reflected in the green eyes of the barn cat who slips in and out of shadows. It is connected to the people and horses who arrive here, limping through their old wounds and trying so hard to be brave. I watch them come and go, learning to take deep breaths, to accept help, to trust, to manage the darker emotions that keep us running from ourselves.

But my eyes are always searching the horizon. Horses symbolize travel and freedom and connection and all of the things my heart craves, but learning what these horses have to teach has required me to tie myself to a place I cannot leave. It has required a patience and vulnerability beyond anything I have ever known. It has required a willingness to wait, the humility to know when to step back and the confidence to know when to push forward.

I have loved horses from the age of three. I have always sought their company, but the practice of sitting comfortably with vulnerability is still one I have yet to master. When I arrived in Colorado, I was on the losing side of a constant battle with depression and anxiety. I didn’t want to stay still. I wanted to outrun my pain and the memories that cause it, but I forced myself to stay and I reached out to the only thing I knew had the power to make me stay: horses.

So now I am here, working at an equine-assisted psychotherapy facility. I have acquired a stubborn horse and a rambunctious heeler puppy. I am trying as hard as I can to stay still, to take deep breaths and lean into my anxiety. There are still days when I wonder if I chose wrong, if I should still be shifting quietly in the desert sand, all of my possessions in a duffle bag and my heart breaking, but free to roam. Restlessness is always wondering what if and there are no satisfactory answers to the questions we pose about the chances we never took and we cannot take them all. I thought I could run forever and that I would find relief in that, but I didn’t. Now my entire world is tied to one place and as restless as I get, I know I cannot leave.

Depression is a daily struggle. Some days I can hardly get out of bed, but the horses must be fed and the dog needs a walk. These animals are carefully leading me through the landscape of my own broken heart, helping me to pick my way through memories of soldiers and sadness, of civilians caught in the crossfire of political ambition and a radical ideology.

Horses are herd animals, hypersensitive to their environment and to the emotional state and body language of those around them. Horses respond to how we feel rather than what we say. I spent so long pushing down my emotions, trying hard to forget. They force me to remember. They force me to face what I fear and what I fear is that one day, my depression will win. 

It backs me into a corner every time. It makes me feel alone. It makes me wish I felt nothing because it is better than feeling everything. It cancels out hope. But horses have always patiently carried us where we asked to be taken and I asked to be taken to a place where I could find healing.

Over the past three years, my horse has carried me through every anxiety attack, standing quietly while I grab fistfuls of mane and cling to him until I can breathe again; he has pushed me harder than I thought possible. He has shown me that love can take hard knocks and old memories, that when my pain brings me to my knees, there will always be someone willing to sit with me until I am ready to make it back to my feet. He has taught me that vulnerability is terrifying, but it is necessary for connection and connection is key to managing depression. He has forced me to tell him the things that I needed to tell myself. The things we don’t tell ourselves or one another often enough. “You can do this. We will work through this. It’s okay to be afraid. I will protect you. I will take care of you. Mistakes are allowed. Imperfection is okay. I forgive you. I admire your bravery, your strength, and your willingness to try.”

Our hearts know what they need and mine has always told me horses, even before I broke it into a thousand pieces with a sadness I could not name. I am restless. My anxiety burns when I stand still and there is temporary relief in running away. But I have seen this same anxiety in my horse and I have always asked him to stand his ground and he has always listened, pawing the ground nervously, but in place with his ears attuned to what he trusts. In training my horse to face his fears, I have had to come to terms with my own. In teaching him to counter his instinct to run away, I have had to learn to sit with my own instinct to run away.

This is not easy. It has taken a commitment to a different kind of travel, walking the same paths between these old barns over and over and over again, trying to take new hopeful things from old painful memories.

I spent three years circling the perimeter of the Medicine Horse community, keeping my head down and my thoughts to myself, mucking stalls and sweeping mats, before I found the courage to look up and reach out. But I am learning to trust that my peace of mind is here, somewhere between all of this dirt and the outstretched wings of a soaring hawk, somewhere between the sound of hooves striking farm roads and the yipping of the coyotes and rusted walls of an old dairy barn.

It has been five years since I stood in the desert, with a keffiyeh in one hand and a notebook in the other. It’s been five years since I gathered the pieces of my broken heart and fractured mind and pointed my feet to a place where they could learn to stand their ground. It’s been five years since I stood at a crossroads near an old Egyptian border crossing and watched an over-worked horse walking slowly down the road and my heart said, “follow that.”

And I did. One careful, unsteady footstep at a time. Until I got to a place where I fell to my knees and a community of horses and people helped me back to my feet. I know now that as restless as I get when my anxiety burns a hole in my heart, I chose wisely. I chose horses. I chose my mental health. I chose connection. I chose vulnerability.

I chose me.


Originally posted on Elephant Journal


Broken Ribs and a Broken Heart: Finding the courage to say no

By Nikki Hodgson

He caught my attention the same way the horses do. Our first kiss was in a parking lot. Our second, at a lookout where I saw a shooting star. I breathed him in like the dusty, sweet scent of hay, and lost track of everything else. My life has been a series of suitcases and moving boxes; he felt like the kind of place where you set down your bags and shut the door.

I have always had trouble saying “no.” I keep my thoughts to myself and swallow my emotions whole. My grandmother had heard about the way the horses work—how they coax courage out of cautious hearts. She signed me up for riding camp when I was seven. For twenty-five years, I have been sweeping dusty coats with horsehair brushes, untangling manes, tightening cinches.

But, for all the horses have taught me, I still have trouble with the word “no.”

When he said “just friends,” I swallowed my disappointment and forced a smile. But he kept coming over anyway. I kept my words tucked under my tongue, tracing my fingers along his skin, quietly waiting for an answer to a question I couldn’t find the courage to ask. Eight months slipped by; 250 nights of staring at the ceiling, torturing myself with what ifs, trying to swallow my anxiety and convince myself I was strong enough to handle the uncertainty of a man who couldn’t love me back, but wouldn’t let me go.

Eventually I wrote out my feelings on two sheets of paper. “I don’t want to talk about it,” I told him, as I slipped the letter into his pocket. “I just need you to know.” He doesn’t talk about it. We don’t talk at all. I am left alone, struggling to arrange my life around this slow, steady sadness and the answer his silence spells out.

I retreat to the barn and to my horse, Nitro. We match. Short and blonde with a cheerful demeanor and a stubborn streak, we have spent a lifetime watching people leave. But where I am passive, Nitro is pushy. My tactic has been to retreat from the world, his is to charge forward into it. We wage constant battles over boundaries.

Affectionate and lively, his toasted marshmallow coloring and wide, black eyes endear him to everyone. But horses can hear the demons roaring in your heart. And they respond to them. He pushes hard against my fears and when I don’t push back, he becomes a thousand-pound manifestation of my every anxiety.

I have forgotten how to be firm. When I ask Nitro to listen, it’s underscored by hesitation. It’s this hesitation that pushes him into a restless, agitated state, constantly dancing around my feet and spooking at shadows. One afternoon I swing my leg over the saddle, feeling him tense as soon as I slide my foot into the stirrup. I can see what’s coming, and I feel powerless to stop it.

When a horse spooks, you feel the bottom drop out and then rise from underneath you, like a wave pulling back and then crashing on the shore. There is a moment of weightlessness and then the strength of momentum. Nitro ducks and spins, throwing himself into the air, his head tucked neatly between his two front legs.

I hit the ground on my right side, fingers still curled around invisible reins. They say your horse is a mirror for your soul; I look at Nitro and wonder when I became so afraid.

There’s not much you can do about a broken rib. Take short, shallow breaths. Stay perfectly still when you sleep.

When I get home, I run a bath and sit in the hot water until it becomes tepid. The man I love is gone; my horse left me alone in the dirt. When I replay both scenes in my head, all I can think is how easily I gave in. I just dropped the reins and let both horse and man throw me into oblivion.

The next day, I am back at the barn. I am limping and it hurts to breathe, but cracked ribs heal, trust can be rebuilt. With the horses, I am brave enough to know that.

Our first few rides are tense. When Nitro starts jigging, I hold my breath. Braced for the impact, lower back tightening, jaw set. My trainer’s voice rings through the panic that sets in when I feel Nitro taking control. “More contact, outside leg, inside rein, follow with your hands, head up, heels down, breathe.”

I need a trainer for my heart. Someone whose voice rings through all the dust I kick up. Someone to stand in the center of the arena and call out reminders when I let the reins go slack, braced against the saddle, waiting for the worst to come.

“It’s okay to be firm,” she says when I am hesitant in correcting Nitro. “If he crosses a line, you need to let him know.” We spin circles in the arena, working to find the balance between the love we crave and the boundaries we need. I can swallow my emotions; I can say, “I’m fine.” But Nitro feels what I feel. I can’t hide from him.

And I’m not fine. I was so afraid to rock the boat that I just sat still and drifted out to sea. I let this man walk all over me. I didn’t even try to get out of the way. I didn’t even try to correct him.

Nitro forces me to stand up for myself a dozen times a day. Every time he refuses to pick up his feet, every time he nips, every time I have to assert myself, I grow a little stronger. The next time he spooks, I keep my seat and a firm hand on the reins. “You’re okay,” I tell him. There is no hesitation in my voice. I take a deep breath, settling my weight, watching as his ears rotate toward me and he softens and yields, coming to a halt.

I’m driving home from the barn when I see the text. It’s been a year. I promise myself it will be different this time. I will draw boundaries. I will stand up for myself. I will say no.

But I don’t. In spite of everything Nitro has taught me, I find myself slipping into the same pattern. I watch the months pass, feeling helpless and afraid.

I distract myself by hauling hay and mucking stalls. When people hurt me, I withdraw into myself. When I don’t know how to say no, I simply stay quiet. It is only at the barn that I stand up and shout. I am so much braver on the back of a horse.

In horse speak, I am firm and I am fair and I am stronger than my fear. I keep my head up and my eyes forward. I know there is always a chance my partner will slam on the brakes and send me flying into the future, headfirst and alone. I lean forward anyway.

I tell him we need to talk, writing out the speech in my head so when I forget everything I meant to say, I can close my eyes and see my emotions organized in rows, stacked neatly with the corresponding words. But, as soon as he’s sitting across from me on the couch, I find the practiced calm that the horses have given me. I swallow my hesitation instead of my heart.

“I want you,” I tell him, “but I don’t want this.” He has taken advantage of me, and it hurts. I am not angry, I am not bitter, but I am tired of being pushed aside. My heart has retained the muscle memory of love learned from horses, where boundaries are required and respect must be enforced. It hurts like hell to tell him no, but I can’t rely on him to draw the boundaries we need. I hug him goodnight and head to the barn.

It’s 20 degrees and snowing. The patches of yellow light hit the stalls and then fade out into the shadows. The pigeons shuffle along the rafters. Nitro rests his head over my shoulder. I tangle my fingers in his mane with my face pressed against his neck. When I lean into him, he leans in right back.

What happens now, I don’t know. But I am no longer as afraid. I leaned forward into a relationship that left me sprawled out in the dust, watching everything I’d imagined gallop off, without me. The impact of the fall has left me aching, standing up slowly. But the word “no” made it out of my mouth. There is freedom in that.

Falling is the inevitable risk of horses and love. The crash landing never becomes any less daunting, but the horses have taught me to lean forward anyway. To stand up for myself. To correct the things that hurt me.

When fear rises up in my heart, I channel my equestrian self, waving my arms, shouting, “back” until my heart is my own again. And I lean against Nitro, watching the moon rise as he swings his nose to my hand: the mirror of his soul, showing me the courage in mine.